HELEN SEMAN SAKMAR

 

Sept. 8, 1893††††††††† Oct. 31, 1956

 

†††††††††††††† This story of my motherís life is based on what I remember being told, and information I gathered from relatives.

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My mother, Helen SEMAN, was born the village of Torysa, Slovakia, then part of the Austria-Hungarian empire.Her parents were Maria and Andrej SEMAN.She was the youngest child; her brothers were Frank, Mathew and Andrew.She had a sister who died very young.Her name may have been Cecilia.

 

Helen attended school in Torysa for about 6 years, then assisted the schoolmaster in teaching the younger children.She remembered tending geese for the villagers.She also recalled those years living under Hungarian rule, when the Slovak language was forbidden and only Hungarian was allowed in the school and village.The villagers spoke Slovak at home and in church, thus preserving the language.Helen recalls the Hungarian soldiers entering her school, removing all Slovak books and papers and burning them in a fire in the village center.

 

Helenís brothers emigrated to Connecticut, USA, leaving Helen to care for her mother until her death.In 1908, her brother Frank sent money and instructions for Helen to join her brothers.She was 15 at the time, traveled alone, her belongings tied in a large shawl.Helen left her village traveling by foot to a farm where she was housed overnight, then that farmer gave her a ride in his wagon to the next farm, and so on, until she reached Bratislava, where she boarded a train to Hamburg, Germany.There she sailed on board the S.S. Bremen, traveling in steerage.Helen was reluctant to talk about the trip saying it was ďtoo horrible.ĒThe food was bad, many people became sick, and she witnessed babies dying and their dead bodies being thrown over board.She did not understand many of the strange languages spoken around her.She said the trip took six weeks, but I am not sure if that was the ocean voyage or the entire trip from when she left the village.I think the latter.

 

Upon arrival in the USA, Helen lived for a short time with her brother Andrew and his family on East St. in New Britain, CT.Through an employment agency, she was soon hired as a live-in domestic servant.She worked for two families before being hired by William CORBIN, a wealthy industrialist who lived in Newington, CT.Here Helen cooked, cleaned and cared for small children.She received room, board and $5 a month.Part of that money was paid in penny stocks, which Mr. CORBIN advised that she never sell, as they would be worth a lot someday.He and his wife helped Helen to speak English, which she soon mastered with barely an accent.

 

William CORBIN held business meetings in his home and Helenís duty was to serve food, clean up after the meal, then stand in waiting should anything be needed.The most distressing task was cleaning out the spittoons after each meeting.Mr. Corbin was very frugal, inspecting the garbage for wasted food and lecturing Helen if any was found.As her English improved, Helen learned about the business world and met prominent business men of that time.She was considered a trusted and loyal servant.

 

On her day off, Helen took the trolley to New Britain each Sunday to visit her brothers and their families.The trolley ride cost 5 cents and was called a ďjitney,Ē which was another name for a nickel.Helen was close to her niece, Frankís daughter, Gizella (Gizzy).They sometimes took the train into New York City to see a show or to shop.

 

Helen accompanied the CORBIN family on trips to New York City and to their vacation home on Fisherís Island in Long Island Sound.Here she learned to drive the family car, a Corbin, made in New Britain by Corbin Industries.Gizzyís daughter, Frances BRAMON, recalls that Helen also drove the family boat around the island.

 

Frank SEMAN introduced Helen to her future husband, John SAKMAR, an immigrant from Brutovce, Slovakia, a village not far from Helenís home in Torysa.On a visit to Johnstown PA, Frank met John, and invited him to New Britain where he met Helen at a church picnic.They were married in All Saintís Slovak Catholic Church on Nov. 25, 1920.Frank SEMAN and daughter Gizzy were witnesses.The wedding dresses Helen and Gizzy wore were bought in New York City.

 

After brief stays on High St. and Oak St., John and Helen moved into a third floor apartment at 41 LaSalle St.The apartment consisted of four rooms heated by a black cast iron coal stove in the kitchen, on which the meals were cooked.John had to carry a pail of coal from a bin in the cellar to the third floor each day to heat the apartment.The house was owned by a Russian family named CHERPAK, who lived on the first floor and ran a small grocery store next door.The TUREK family lived on the 2nd floor.

Five children were born to Helen and John:

Margaret Jane††††† b. Nov. 29, 1921†††††††††††† d. July 10, 1970 - Cancer- pancreas

John Francis††††††† b. May 23, 1924†††††††††††† d. Nov. 13, 1924 - Polio (during an epidemic)

Helen††††††††† b. Oct. 9, 1925†††††††††††††† d. Sept. 11, 1927 - Broncho-pneumonia

Irene Mary††††††††††† b. Nov 27, 1928

Frances Helen†††††† b. June 10, 1931

 

We were all born at home assisted by a Slovak midwife, Helen DURANY.Many immigrant babies were home births.Apparently hospitalization was not affordable.The midwife was summoned by a messenger, since no one had telephones.

Soon after, a physician made a house call to examine the baby and to certify the birth.A city nurse visited to instruct the mother in nursing and care of the infant.

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We were baptized in and attended All Saintís Slovak Catholic Church on Wilcox St. where my father was a charter member.My mother enrolled us in St. Maryís Catholic School on Beaver St. staffed by the Sisters of Mercy.St Maryís Church was founded by Irish immigrants and was the first Catholic Church in New Britain.We entered in kindergarten and graduated at the end of eighth grade.Because we were not parishioners of St. Maryís Church, my parents had to pay a tuition fee, which would have been difficult to do during the depression.A Catholic education must have been important to them.

 

My father was a factory worker at P&F Corbin Co.He stood at a bench and sprayed metallic gold and silver paint on door checks all day long.He later suffered from respiratory problems as this was before OSHA safety precautions.Once, he was sent home from work, seriously ill with pleurisy.The factory nurse visited and taught Mom and Margaret to make flaxseed poultices, which had to be applied to País chest often during the day and night.It was moist heat treatment, and apparently effective.This was before the advent of penicillin.He worked 12 hours a day, until the union reduced the work day to eight hours.

 

In 1936, during the depression, my parents bought a three family home at 49 Wilcox St.It was across the street from Frank SEMANís house, and near All Saints Church.It was a bank repossession and cost $5000.It was mortgaged. We never had a car.We walked to school or took a bus in bad weather.Mom was a homemaker.She sewed all our dresses, pajamas and other clothes on a Singer treadle sewing machine.She also crocheted doilies, and tatted lace edgings for bureau scarves and handkerchiefs.She was a fastidious housekeeper, a good cook and loved to garden.People coming from the nearby church would stop and admire her flowers and shrubs.Her roses often decorated the church altars.

 

From a small vegetable garden, and fruit trees in the backyard, Mom canned and preserved tomatoes, pickles, peaches, cherries and plums.Jelly was made from grapes in an arbor, which also provided shade in summer for picnics and play.Pa had a wine press in the cellar and each fall he and next door neighbors, Steve CESANEK and Joe ANGELO, crushed grapes, aged the mash in a wooden barrel, then siphoned off and bottled the wine.The whole house smelled like a winery.

 

We rarely saw a doctor as children.We all had the usual childhood diseases; measles, mumps, chicken pox and German measles, but not the dreaded scarlet fever, which was epidemic at that time.I recall seeing a pink health dept. quarantine notice posted on the front door of several houses where an occupant had the disease.My friend, Marge Z. had all her hair cut off as a folk remedy for scarlet fever.Our colds were treated with Vickís Vapor Rub and Father Johnís Cough Medicine.Fran recalls wearing a small cloth bag containing camphor tied to a cord around her neck to ward off polio.A bitter herbal tea with honey was given for stomach aches.Warm oil on a cotton ball was put in our ears for earaches.For fevers, a flannel cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol was placed on our foreheads, and aspirin.

 

We went to a city-run clinic at Washington School for our pre-school physical exams and vaccinations, then later for polio vaccine.I was the only one to have my tonsils removed when very young, and I had an appendectomy at age 12.There was much discussion about paying the bill with cash.

 

During the war, in the 1940s Mom went to work at New Britain Machine Co. assembling tool parts.She worked the second shift - 3 to 11 p.m.She cooked supper earlier, then Margaret would reheat it and serve Pa, Fran and me.The house seemed so empty without her and we missed her at the supper table.

 

A small kerosene stove was used to heat the bathroom when we took baths. One evening Mom came home from work after 11 p.m. and found Margaret lying on the floor near her bedroom and Fran and me in our bed, barely responding.Apparently, the kerosene heater had malfunctioned, and we were overcome by fumes.Mom called the third floor tenant, Mrs. GLASS, a nurse, who opened windows and revived us.Shortly after that, Mom quit her factory job.Before long, an oil fired hot air furnace was installed.

 

Holidays were celebrated in the traditional Slovak manner, with lots of church services, as All Saints was just around the corner.Mom baked traditional breads, nut and poppy seed rolls, and everything was made from scratch.She regularly cooked beef soup, lamb stew, pot roast, roast pork and made the best fried chicken.Kielbasa, sauerkraut and rye bread were also frequently served.On Saturday afternoons, Pa would cook jellied pigís feet (studzienina) made with pigís knuckles, veal bones, onions, celery, garlic and parsley.It jelled overnight in our cold pantry.Sprinkled with paprika, that was a Sunday morning treat.

 

Every Thurs. after school I was sent to a meat market on Lafayette St. to buy 1 lb. of sirloin steak which cost twenty five cents.It fed the five of us.Live chickens were sold at a store on the corner of Lafayette and Main St., killed and plucked in a back room and cooked soon after arriving home as there was very little refrigeration.On LaSalle St. we had an ice box, then we acquired a small refrigerator when we moved to Wilcox St.That had a small ice cube compartment, but no freezer.

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Mom followed the news closely, reading the daily paper, and checking the stock market, and when we acquired a radio on LaSalle St., she listened to news reports.Both parents listened to Franklin Rooseveltís Fireside Chats and Mom would invite the neighbors. Since she was more fluent in English, she explained the reports to her neighbors.She encouraged the women to register to vote, but many were reluctant, having left oppression behind, and some had a fear of government.Mom was an officer in the Jednota, a Catholic Slovak Ladies Society.Women came to our home to have important papers interpreted, which Mom would stamp with an official seal.She was a registered Democrat, while Pa was a Republican.He believed that would help him keep his job.He resisted joining a union also, fearing job loss.They had many lively discussions about politics.

Mom was a kind and giving person.In the 1930s, I recall coming home from school to find a strange man sitting on our back porch steps, eating a sandwich with a cup of coffee.When I asked Mom about him, she said he was ďa hungry tramp.ĒIt seems during the depression people would go from house to house, begging for food.Every penny counted in our house.Mom must have had to think twice before feeding this man.Her generous heart won out.Given the state of the economy at that time, he may well have been turned away at other doors.

 

Except for diabetes, which many of her SEMAN relatives had, and which she controlled with insulin and diet, Mom enjoyed good health.She suffered a broken wrist in a fall on an icy sidewalk.She had a hysterectomy in the 1940s.Mom was diagnosed with cancer of the breast in 1951, had a left mastectomy and lived for five years until the cancer metastasized to her brain.She died peacefully at home on Oct 31, 1956, at age 63, cared for by all three of us daughters who lived near by.

 

Pa spent his last years in poor health, suffering from diabetes, emphysema and other age-related conditions.He was operated on for hydrops of the gall bladder.He later developed cancer of the pancreas, had surgery and was discharged to the Corbin Convalescent Home.He died there on August 25, 1967 at the age of 80.By now, Fran and I had moved away and could no longer care for him at home.Both our parents lived long enough to see us achieve higher education, marry and to know some of their grandchildren.

 

Margaretís daughter Carol (MADRAK) PETERSON, Momís first grandchild and the only one to have memories of her, recalls this:

 

ďWhen I was young, my Gramma was my savior.She gave me warm smiles and hugs.We would toast rye bread over the coals at the end of a big, black coal stove.Lots of times my bread caught fire and we would blow out the flames and grin at each other.We scraped off the blackened part, then slathered the rest with butter and had a feast.Gramma was good to me.She never scolded me.Once I knocked over the sugar bowl by accident, spilling sugar all over the table.I was petrified.Gramma never got angry at me, or anyone else that I can remember.I can still picture Grammaís face, and smell her hands.They smelled like bleach and yeast.She was kinder to me than anyone else in my life, and I tried to be like her when I raised my children.I donít know how old I was when Gramma died.I only remember going to her funeral at All Saintís Church.We were sitting on the left side of the aisle, up toward the front.Iím not sure I understood what it was really all about, but at some point I could feel Gramma so strongly that I burst into tears and had to be taken outside.

 

My Gramma.I can still see her face, feel her warmth and smile.I hope she has a special place in heaven.Ē

 

The Wilcox St. neighborhood consisted of two, three and six family houses, many of which were owned by Slovak families.My parentís house had three apartments.They lived on the first floor, Bill and I with our four children lived on the second floor, and Margaret, Clem, and their two children on the third floor.At that time multi-family house ownership was important financially.It was expected that when the first generation married, they would occupy the rental units in the parentís house, and, as the parents aged, the children would support them and care for the property.Since the immigrant parents had mainly worked before the onset of Social Security and had very little income or savings for retirement, the only income might be from the rental of the units.Parents were cared for at home until death.Nursing homes were rare and usually not affordable.

 

World War II and the following prosperity changed life for us all.Most of the first generation young men served in the military during the war, and after, jobs were plentiful.The women worked in factories or department stores.If tuition was available, a young woman might attend the nearby Teacherís College, (now CCSU) or go into nursing.Some continued to work after marriage.

 

Upon graduation from high school Margaret was hired as a librarian at the New Britain Public Library where she worked until her marriage and motherhood, then later up to her death at age 48.I graduated from the Hartford Hospital School of Nursing in 1950 and attended Central Conn. State University for certification as a secondary school health instructor. Fran received a scholarship to St Josephís College in West Hartford and attained a BS in Nursing.She later acquired an MS in Nursing and another MS in Education after moving to Maine.

 

In writing this story, I have come to appreciate the great courage it took for my parents to face the challenges that immigrants everywhere experience.To leave loved ones and a familiar homeland, and to embark on a journey to a strange world must have been frightening.Having to trust in the goodness of strangers for help during the physically demanding trip was not without danger.Upon arriving, they had many hurdles to overcome.Their struggle to learn a new language, new customs and laws, as well as to find a way to support themselves must have been daunting.Yet they managed to find work, gain home ownership, raise and educate a family, see them marry and live to enjoy their grandchildren.Their strong work ethic and deep religious faith helped them achieve this new life.Our parents, Helen and John SAKMAR serve as a shining example for all of us.